Far-right terrorism

This piece was originally published on Re-Public on 16 December, 2011.

The mass killings in Norway on the afternoon of 22 July 2011 hit home the threat posed by acts of far-right terrorism. On that fateful day, an improvised explosive device hidden in a car was detonated at the centre of the executive government quarter in Oslo, killing eight people. Two hours after the explosion, a gunman disguised as a police officer opened fire on a summer camp organized by the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth association AUF on the island of Utøya, located 32 kilometers outside of Oslo.The shooting eventually claimed 69 lives, raising the total death toll to 77. The suspect, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, confessed to committing both attacks and has been charged under Norwegian criminal law for acts of terrorism. The charges include the destabilization of vital functions of society, including government, and causing serious fear in the population. Only hours before the attacks, Breivik posted a 1,517-page manifesto on the Internet in which he justified the massacre as “necessary” to save Norway and Europe from Muslim immigrants and specifically to punish his country’s political establishment for embracing multiculturalism.

Leaderless resistance and the far right

Far-right terrorism is clearly not a new phenomenon (Bjørgo1995; Merkl and Weinberg 2003), however its nature has changed significantly in recent decades. One major change, which is highlighted by the 22 July 2011 attacks, is that far-right terrorism has come to be closely associated with the concept of leaderless resistance, in which an individual (a “lone wolf”) or a small cell engages in acts of anti-state violence without any direct outside command or hierarchy. The threat of this type of attack is emphasized in a recent US Homeland Security (2009) report, which describes “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology” as “the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States”.

The leaderless resistance concept dates back to at least the early 1970s, when far-right extremists in the US began to encourage their peers to act resolutely and alone against the state. This commitment to act alone was in contrast to the relatively rigid, centralized command structure of many then-contemporary terrorist groups which were deemed vulnerable to detection, infiltration and prosecution by the state. The concept was popularized by Louis Beam, a Klansman with ties to Aryan Nations who advocates leaderless resistance as a strategy to counteract the destruction of right-wing militias by US law enforcement agencies. Beam’s (1992) vision is one where “all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction”. Beam goes on to assert: “It is the duty of every patriot to make the tyrant’s life miserable. When one fails to do so he not only fails himself, but his people”. This mindset shifts agency and accountability from the group to the individual or autonomous collective. Beam and other far-right extremists, including for instance Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, encouraged like-minded individuals to conduct lone wolf attacks as a means to overthrow an allegedly corrupt political system and replace it with their new order.

In recent years a number of European far-right extremists have also been influenced by this call for lone wolf attacks. In 1999, British neo-Nazi David Copeland carried out a two-week bombing campaign targeting London’s Black, Asian and gay communities. Over three successive weekends, Copeland placed improvised explosive devices in public locations. The first bomb detonated outside a supermarket in Brixton, an area known for its large Black and minority ethnic population. The second bomb exploded just off Brick Lane, East London, which has a large South Asian community. The third and final bomb detonated in the busy Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, a focal point for London’s gay community. The attacks killed a total of three people, including a pregnant woman, and injured 129 others. A decade later, neo-Nazi Neil Lewington was jailed for planning a racially motivated terrorist attack after being found with two improvised explosive devices at a rail station in England. Lewington reportedly wanted to emulate David Copeland as well as Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bomb attack in Oklahoma City claimed 168 lives.

Anders Breivik, the accused perpetrator of the attacks in Norway, seems to have been similarly inspired by the leaderless resistance concept. In his manifesto Breivik indicates that he planned and executed the attack without any direct outside command or support, while also suggesting that he is somehow linked to a larger group which seeks to encourage other lone wolves and small cells across Europe to carry out similar attacks. According to Breivik (2011: 830), these solo cells are “completely unknown to our enemies”, and have “a minimal chance of being exposed”. He recommends that “optimally (lone wolves) should not have any affiliations to ‘extremist networks’ or to any extreme right wing movements for obvious reasons”, that is, “to stay hidden”. It is in this context that Europol and other European law enforcement agencies warn that lone wolf terrorist attacks are often very hard to prevent.

The role of the Internet

Another key lesson to be drawn from the recent attacks in Norway is that the Internet has become a convenient medium for the dissemination and communication of radical material, providing individuals with direct access to a community of like-minded individuals around the world with whom they can connect as well as to a large volume of far-right material and operational support material, such as online bomb-making manuals (the quality of which varies considerably). Anders Breivik was active on radical Internet fora and websites. He closely followed the online statements and blogs of a number of far-right thinkers, communicated directly with some of these individuals, and later cited them in his own manifesto. Breivik sent his manifesto to a variety of mailing lists and posted a 12-minute video on the Internets summarizing his arguments. The case of David Copeland further illustrates the potential role of the Internet in vicariously engaging with communities of support. Copeland read far-right texts online and learnt his bomb-making techniques through downloading and studying online bomb-making manuals.

Similar to the public response to the attacks in Norway, after Copeland’s arrest there were calls for a crackdown on the publication of inciteful and racist literature on the Internet. However, the removal of specific hate websites appears to be a relatively futile attempt to restrict far-right extremists’ access and exposure, even though the monitoring of extremist websites can help to develop an understanding of the ideological environment from within which a lone wolf terrorist may emerge. Moreover, the effectiveness of “cyber surveillance” is not only constrained by the fact that it is extremely difficult to differentiate between those extremists who intend to commit attacks and those who simply express radical beliefs, but raises the important question of how monitoring of the Internet can be done (if at all) without further eroding civil liberties.

Communities of support

Whilst the above mentioned acts of far-right terrorism resulted from solitary action during which the direct support or command of others was absent, such action and its justification clearly do not take place in a vacuum. Indeed, lone wolf terrorists are more often than not strongly influenced (if only tacitly or vicariously) by wider extremist communities that provide ideologies which cultivate an alternate sense of morality capable of justifying the destruction of life and property that terrorism entails (Jackson 2011). David Copeland, for example, made an attempt to align himself with an extremist milieu that conformed to his expectations of a violent, revolutionary vanguard by connecting with the British National Party (BNP) and the National Socialist Movement. His far-right connections augmented his personal worldview that regarded mainstream society as a corrupt and decaying order. Copeland justified his actions using far-right ideology, asserting that his intent was to spread fear, resentment and hatred throughout the UK and to cause a “racial war”. Interestingly, Copeland left the BNP because, as he put it, the party did not advocate violence (Spaaij 2011).

In a similar vein, Anders Breivik’s worldview has been shaped in part by his involvement in Norway’s Progress Party (FpU) and its youth organization, of which he was a member as an adolescent and young adult. Breivik (2011: 1396) states that he left the Progress Party because it did not go far enough: “I eventually concluded that it would be impossible to change the system democratically and left conventional politics. While most far-right activists who reach this conclusion appear to slide into ritualism or retreatism (to use Robert K. Merton’s terms), Breivik, like Copeland, instead drifted towards the most gruesome form of rebellion – that of mass killing – by portraying himself as the embodied consciousness of all “ethnic Europeans” whose societies are under “the imminent threat of the dark force that is trying to undermine all things civil we believe in” (Breivik 2011: 388, 610). Although by advocating and carrying out mass violence Breivik goes much further than most far-right ideologues have ever done, his actions cannot be seen in isolation from the wider culture of fear and violence promoted by far-right movements in Europe and beyond.

In the case of Breivik, the sources of his ideological influences are not traditional categories of far-right ideology such as white supremacism or ultranationalism. For example, he does not express any anti-Semitism in his manifesto and is dismissive of crude racial supremacist and neo-Nazi ideas. Instead, his worldview is strongly influenced by a relatively new far-right intellectual current called counter-jihadism, which has gained substantial momentum in Europe since 9/11.

This is expressed in his profound concern about the effects of immigration, multiculturalism and Islam on European society and identity, as well as the perceived permissiveness of “leftist” governments. Put it differently, while the shocking, painful and costly manner in which Breivik’s hatred was vented is relatively unique, the content of his hate certainly is not.

One main risk is that terrorist acts of this type can have an inspiration effect, that is, inspire copycat behaviour from other disaffected individuals or invite bandwagon attacks. In his manifesto Anders Breivik writes that through his actions he sought to inspire others to carry out similar attacks elsewhere. It remains to be seen if this is a figment of his imagination, or whether there are indeed other counter jihad activists like him planning acts of mass violence across Europe.

Dr Ramon Spaaij is Senior Research Fellow, Deputy Director, La Trobe Refugee Research Centre at La Trobe's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences